Moira Somers

The key to building a book of clients that follow your advice is to find that happy medium between being “an arrogant hard-ass and a squishy marshmallow,” argues financial psychologist Moira Somers in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.

Clients ignore financial advisors’ counsel because, for one, they’re human and because advisors commit big errors that make adherence even more difficult. But when advice sticks, FAs see lower client drop-out rates and more referrals, Somers says.

(Related: ‘Financial Comedian’ Jeff Kreisler on How to Maximize Retirement Savings)

In her book, “Advice that Sticks: How to Give Financial Advice That People Will Follow” (Practical Inspiration-March 2018) — written for professional money counselors — the consultant and financial therapist presents a number of “adherence-boosting” strategies. They combine approaches from the fast-growing fields of neuroeconomics, positive psychology and behavioral economics.

For a decade now, Somers, whose background is as a clinical neuropsychologist, has been adapting health-related behavioral-change techniques to financial advice-giving (moneymindandmeaning.com).

“I’ve always been interested in what makes it so hard for human beings to do the right thing,” she says, noting that her Ph.D. dissertation was on procrastination.

In the interview, Somers — based in Winnipeg, Canada (from where she often trains FAs and firms across North America via Skype) — highlights a handful of Don’ts: what to avoid that could thwart adherence and even harm client relationships. They include: Don’t be judgmental and disdainful. Don’t debate with ambivalent clients. Don’t offer solutions too soon — let the client talk. You’ll get a wealth of information.

The doctor has some Do’s as well, such as asking “three readiness questions” to assess if, based on the advisor’s recommendation, investors are prepared to take the next step.

“Failure to ensure readiness is a major contributor to non-adherence,” cautions Somers.

ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed Somers, on the phone from her summer cabin on Lake Manitoba. Though the emphasis is on how to gain clients’ cooperation, sometimes advisors need to “transfer, refer or even fire” a client, she points out: Just as it is essential to choose a breed of dog that “fits your lifestyle and personality,” she writes, “persistent adherence challenges with a particular client [or type] [could mean] this is not the right dog for you.”

Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Why should advisors pay attention to the “soft side” of giving advice?

All across the wealth spectrum it has been thought that math was the important thing. But we’re trying to give advice to human hearts and minds — so you have to figure out how to engage clients. If advisors aren’t trained in that, they’re going to make predictable — but preventable — errors.

How do clients’ sticking to FAs’ advice help FAs?

People who follow advice are more loyal to their advisors. When advisors get good at giving advice that people can follow and support the implementation, they end up with much happier clients and more referrals. And the advisors end up less stressed.

Why do clients ignore or buck so much of the advice that FAs provide?

Sound financial advice requires us to delay gratification, to anticipate future needs and to honor those needs as much as we honor what’s immediately in front of us. But humans disproportionately focus on what feels good here and now. And then there are some advisor errors that make it all the more daunting for consumers to follow up.

Advisors need to “find the right ground between being an arrogant hard-ass and a squishy marshmallow,” you write. The latter would be someone who’s too empathic, I suppose?

Yes — always pulling punches, not being willing to say, “There’s nothing more I can do for you if we don’t change the direction this is going.”

But you also make the point that advisors need to empathize with clients as opposed to showing judgement and disdain. Advisors really do that?

Yes. They show judgement and disdain all the time. There are certain things that seem to generate a lot more judgement than others. Overspending is one of them. Adult children who are thwarting their parents’ financial or retirement plan is another thing that just makes advisors crazy.

Why?

They’re trying to protect their clients. They’re worried about what’s going to become of these people if they don’t pull things out of the fire. But that sometimes doesn’t come across as concerned or curious or kind. It comes across as “judgy.”

You also recommend not debating with ambivalent clients. Why?

That’s based on a principle we learn in martial arts: Don’t combat brute force with brute force — it can end very badly. When you debate with an ambivalent client, you’re often forcing them to come up with stronger and stronger reasons to justify their inaction or not committing to the course of action you’re very concerned about.

What else might that sort of debating result in?

It can drive client objections underground. That is, they may smile and nod and say, “I’ll get back to you on that.”

What’s the best way for advisors to avoid that?

Truly get to know the client: “Tell me more about [whatever issue] to help me understand.” You may discover something really critical, or the clients may stop midway and say about themselves, “Well, that’s pretty stupid, isn’t it?”

What good does that do?

Clients can realize they’ve been stuck on something that may have fit them in the past — an old “money script,” perhaps — that no longer fits their circumstances. As you get them to talk, you have a chance to understand what’s driving their decision-making.

Advisors should strive for a client relationship “generally free from the sway of short-term emotions,” you write. Please explain.

The majority of new clients come to advisors in times of major life transitions: marriage, divorce, death [etc.]. Those are the money-in-motion times when short-term emotions can hijack their best thinking. It may be that someone found out his wife is leaving him and is asking you to help hide the assets or adult children who don’t like their father’s new wife.

What could happen under those circumstances?

Decisions based on [short-term emotions] have a high potential for [investment] regret when they’re not informed by the longer term view. Advisors can help by tapping into that longer term view.

You write that often FAs move too quickly into offering solutions, and that contributes to non-adherence. Why?

It takes a bit of time to establish a relationship and make sure people are giving you the full monty — disclosing fully. This requires a certain degree of comfort. Advisors jump in way too soon talking about themselves, their process, their offerings, blah-blah-blah.

What’s the impact of that?

The research is unambiguous: Satisfaction is directly related to the amount of “air-time” the client gets. If you move too soon into offering recommendations, you may be taking up that valuable time — and giving advice that’s wildly off the mark because you haven’t taken the time to find out, for example, if they’re really the decision-makers — or is there a power behind the throne? Or what’s happened in the past when they may have tried to [invest similarly]?

What are “the three readiness questions” advisors should ask clients? “There can be no good advice without agreement from the advisee,” you write.

Right after you’ve made a recommendation, it’s time to ask: “Does this seem like the right course of action for you to be taking?” You’re asking if they’re in agreement. The next question is: “If you were to do this, what do you think the benefits would be?” You’re tapping into the client’s level of motivation instead of telling them why it’s such a good thing. Their motivation will be much more impactful than your reasons.

What’s the third question?

“If you decide to go ahead with this, do you think you could? [and you could follow up with] “What might get in your way? What would help remove those barriers? Have you ever tried something like this in the past and been unable to do it?” This is tapping into self-efficacy: a belief you can do what needs to be done in order to reach your goals. So it’s not just getting to yes. It’s having an implementation conversation.

Self-efficacy is the best predictor of changed behavior, you write.

Yes. If the client has a plan and confidence that they can do what it takes with support to execute that plan, chances are very high they’ll be a good implementer.

Why is it important to ask a client about the people who have taught them valuable lessons about money?

That helps you begin to learn what’s influencing then, driving them and what their competencies are. You’ll find out that they’ve learned valuable lessons from a relative, say, or — on the other hand — that they might admire someone, maybe a TV star, who you know to be reckless with money.

You stress that implementation isn’t just the client’s job. To what extent is it the FA’s too?

You get much better implementation rates when [others and systems] are also part of the implementation process. Banks know how to do this well. To pay your mortgage, they set it up so the money comes out of your account at a certain time. Likewise, advisors need to set up things with the right defaults so clients aren’t required to constantly exercise their will power and memory.

Such as what?

One thing they’ve caught onto is arranging for automatic contributions to retirement plans, like a 40l(k). The client makes one decision. It’s not like it’s some sort of sinister action that takes away the right to change their mind. It uses their best intention to set up their best financial behavior. Once that happens, people are very reluctant to uncheck a box or check a different box.

What’s the behavior that you term “unintentional non-adherence?”

Sheer forgetting or losing track. The client says, “I came home with the paper, and I intended to sign it — but then it slipped my mind.”

So that means FAs should routinely follow up with clients?

Absolutely. But [often] they need to change how their offices are organized so their whole team is trained around the fact that “We’re in this together with our clients. It’s not simply our clients’ responsibility to get paperwork back to us.” That’s part of being a partner in implementation.

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